A hazard of being a food writer is being asked – frequently – to name your favorite restaurant meal in a particular town, a particular state, a particular country, or sometimes just “ever.” So, over the years I’ve given some thought to what makes a meal special: a pleasing setting, good (but not necessarily incomparable) food, nice service and good company.

The components will hardly shock you. But what elevates a meal to “favorite” status for me is the seemingly magical – and surprisingly rare – times that these things all come together. They came together for me at Il Leone pizza on Peaks Island the Friday before Labor Day.

The pizza – wood-fired – was excellent with nice chew, nice char, flavorful crust and a pedigreed farm-to-table heart. The mozzarella comes from Italy, according to owner Benjamin Wexler-Waite, and almost all the produce from Stonecipher organic farm in Bowdoinham.

Il Leone sits under a grove of trees on the Peaks Island Lions Club property. Peggy Grodinsky photo

The service was friendly and informative. The afternoon was one of those perfect late summer days that Maine bestows, and even though I knew about Il Leone long before I set out for Peaks Island, still the place felt like a lucky find: Disembark, climb the hill to town, turn right on Island Avenue, walk a few minutes and there, surprise, under a pleasant grove of trees on Lions Club land (hence the name), with just a glimpse of the bay beyond, is Il Leone. The very casual pop-up seasonal restaurant, which has 10 picnic tables, opened this summer.

My partner and I were there with dear visiting friends from the British Virgin Islands. It seemed redundant to take people who live on an island in the ocean to another island in the ocean on their vacation, but they were good sports about it, and also about eating pizza and gelato instead of Maine-summer-visitor-appropriate lobster, chowder and whoopie pies.

As the ferry motored over from the mainland, I’d anticipated being told, as is not uncommon on August weekends in Portland proper, that no tables would be available for, say, another 1½ hours (or maybe another week). Shockingly, when we got to Il Leone at 1:35 p.m. as Labor Day weekend was getting underway, only three picnic table were occupied. I hope I haven’t just jinxed my next visit.

Bombarded as we Americans are with endless and exhausting choices (for dental floss, dishwashing liquid, office chairs, coffee, you name it), I have an abiding affection for restaurants that stick to just one or two items and do them well. The afternoon we visited, Il Leone’s menu offered four classic and intentionally simple pizzas and two specials (including lobster pizza, $34.95), also one choice of salad, one antipasto special, and gelato from Gelato Fiasco.

The Diavolo pizza, with Italian salami, at Il Leone on Peaks Island. Peggy Grodinsky photo

We ordered two funghi pizzas ($17.95 each) and two diavolo ($16.95 each). As someone whose summertime food choices tend toward vegetables, I surprised myself by preferring the latter with its slim circles of spicy salami. The pizzas are thin-crusted and the tomatoes form an understated backdrop, not a domineering sauce. About 12 inches around, each pizza is sliced into four and meant for one, according to the staff (next time, I’ll stop at three slices or rent a bike and circle the island a few times before I drop in). We also got the Cavolo Nero (kale) salad ($9.95), or rather I got the salad, as it turned out, our guests were not keen on raw kale. Suggestion to the person dressing the salad: Use a lighter touch. A small complaint.

Like any good pizza place, Il Leone is serious about its dough, which is naturally leavened and fermented for at least 24 hours. Peggy Grodinsky photo

We waited some 10 minutes for our pizzas. Or maybe it was 15. As I watched the pizzas being made – the naturally leavened dough stretched and flipped, the toppings sprinkled, the pizzas slid into the very hot mobile oven on a long peel and back out again a few minutes later – the wait dissolved.

Peaks Island has more than its share of natural beauty (also, these days, far more than its share of noxious golf carts), but it does not have an abundance of excellent food – until now.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: